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Living Christmas Tree celebrates 20 years

By Katie Scarvey
kscarvey@salisburypost.com
Many call it a “singing Christmas tree,” but officially, it’s the “living Christmas tree” at First Baptist Church. And to the people who devote their time to it, starting in August, it’s simply…
The Tree.
This year will be the 20th that First Baptist Church has brought The Tree to the Salisbury community. This year’s services are set for Dec 1-5.
The tradition began in 1992 when Steve Harrill was music director. Russ Robbins has since taken over and is in his ninth year of directing The Tree. And while it might not quite take a village to keep The Tree going every year, Robbins says that 300 people are involved in the whole project: singers, orchestra members, security, ushers, greeters, actors, stagehands, those who assemble and decorate the tree, those who feed the choir between the weekend services.
Engineer Steve Jones, a First Baptist member, built the tree from scratch the first year. This year’s tree will begin to go up tomorrow in the sanctuary — it takes up the whole choir loft — and by now, the church has the assembling process down almost down to a science. After services Sunday, the main body of the tree will be put together in the sanctuary. On Monday, all the bolts will be tightened and rails added. The structure will then be layered with green cloth, which is stapled on. For one Sunday service, the bare tree dominates the sanctuary. Then, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, a crew puts greenery on the tree.
Robbins notes that the greenery used to be real, but with the big ice storm about 10 years ago, The Tree services had to be postponed. The greenery dried out and was unusable by the date of the rescheduled performances.So the church had to remove the greenery and then completely redecorate the tree.
After that year, they decided to go with artificial greenery, Robbins says.
After the greenery goes on, the lights are added, then decorations. The whole process takes about a week.
Since this is the 20th anniversary, the church has invited the former directors to come back and direct a song during the Sunday morning service, Robbins says. Besides Harrill and Robbins, there were two interim directors: Doug Jordan for one year and Neil Wilkinson for two years.
Wilkinson, says Robbins, has participated in The Tree for all 20 years and has never missed a single service.
Choir numbers fluctuate between 55 and 90 from year to year, Robbins says. No audition is required. it’s primarily made up of church members, but it’s also been a tradition for a long time, he says, to open it to members of the community. This year, there are 80 singers, and Robbins estimates there may be up to a dozen singers from other churches.
If you want to be part of The Tree, however, you must be committed. Weekly rehearsals kick off in mid-August, and there is typically a two-day retreat in September. A few “bonus” rehearsals are thrown in when necessary, Robbins says.
Typically, the service features about 15 songs and lasts for about an hour and 15 minutes. Choir members must have the songs memorized, so each year Robbins selects some songs that are well-known to the singers, some that are somewhat known and others that are brand new.
The Tree, Robbins says, is “a wonderful tradition.
“We see this as a great outreach tool because over 5,000 people come each year to see it, through the seven services.”
The church can accommodate about 850-900 people for each service, he says. It costs nothing to attend, but people must have tickets so that no one is disappointed and turned away on a busy night.
Besides the choir and orchestra, a drama team also participates in the service.
“It’s a great thing to draw people here so that they can hear the message. We tell the Christ story from birth to resurrection and do it through the drama and music.”
This year’s theme is “Glory to God in the Highest.” Member Phyllis Keels has written the narration,working closely with Robbins. Keels will also give her testimony, Robbins says.
“She lost her daughter this past year in a car accident and she will share about how God has carried her through this time,” Robbins says.
Debbie Teague, who has been part of the music ministry at First Baptist since 1984, has been part of The Tree for all 20 years.
Over that time, she says, they’ve gotten more efficient, learning which things work and which don’t.
“We know what to expect,” she says. “There are fewer surprises. We try to look ahead and cover all the bases ahead of time.”
Every year, a real baby plays Jesus, and usually that works fine, but one year, “sweet baby Jesus was not happy” and screamed throughout the service, Teague says, continuing even outside the sanctuary after his mother whisked him away.
Robbins remembers hearing about a rehearsal one year before he was director when one of the Wise Men — “in this case a wise guy,” he says — came to rehearsal in a fireman’s hat featuring a flashing light.
When asked why, he said it was because “we come from a fahr.”
“Thankfully, that was in a rehearsal, not a service,” Robbins says.
It’s also become a tradition with the girls who play angels in the biblical drama to act out the line “the heavens explode.”
“They’re back there ‘exploding,’” Robbins says. “The congregation can’t see them, but the choir can.”
Sometimes, though, everyone is reminded of the real reason for the service.
“We have a devotional time before every service,” Robbins says. “Before we go out, we meet in the back of the chapel and pray together and talk about people we know that are going to be at the service who need special prayer.”
One choir member, he said, shared about how her husband had been saved as a result of one of the services, and how meaningful The Tree has been for her as a result of that experience.
Performances are at 7 p.m. Dec.1; 8 p.m. Dec. 2; 5:30 and 8 p.m. Dec. 3; 5:30 and 8 p.m. Dec. 4 and 8 p.m. Dec. 5.
Tickets are available at the music office of First Baptist Church, 223 N. Fulton St. Call 704-633-0431 for information and ask to speak to Debbie or Russ.

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